Piaget’s Developmental Cognitive Stage Theory, Term Paper Example
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Piaget’s constructivist, cognitive-developmental stage theory has become one of the most widely-known and influential in the field of cognitive and developmental psychology, and in education as well. For Piaget, development proceeded through four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete-operational, and formal operational. At each stage, the infant, child, young person or adult learns by adaptation, expanding, revising, or creating schemas—systems of actions or mental representations. Though it is not without its flaws, in many ways Piaget’s theory is one of the most important and insightful theories regarding the development of cognitive abilities.
Swiss-born Jean Piaget came to psychology by way of zoology, a field he evinced interest in at a very young age (Shaffer & Kipp, 2010, p. 53). The story of the precocious young scientist publishing, at the age of 10, an article concerning “the behavior of a rare albino sparrow” has since become widely known, and is an oft-repeated anecdote concerning this great scholar (p. 53). His interests in animal behavior and adaptation led Piaget to successfully complete a doctoral degree in the field of zoology in 1918 (p. 53).
However, Piaget had another interest: epistemology, the philosophical study of origins of knowledge (Shaffer & Kipp, 2010, p. 53). It was the quest to integrate and synthesize this interest in zoology with his zoological pursuits that would eventually lead to Piaget’s great contributions to developmental psychology (p. 53). Piaget moved to Paris and began to work in the nascent field of intelligence testing (p. 53). His work here proved to have a precipitous impact on the development of his own theoretical contributions: in seeking to evaluate the intelligence of young children, he observed that young children of the same age groups consistently gave the same kinds of wrong answers to questions (p. 53). This led to Piaget’s major realization: young children utilize very different thought processes from older children (p. 53).
Piaget is most famous for his stage theory of cognitive development; however, before detailing the stages, it is essential to examine the definitions, constructs, and processes that Piaget proposed as the foundational building blocks of cognitive development. The first key concept is the term schema: in Piaget’s theory, a schema is defined as “an organized system of actions or a mental representation that people use to understand the world and interact with it” (Nevid, 2009, p. 353). Schemas are adaptive and adaptable, powerful frameworks for structuring learning (p. 353). In Piaget’s theory, even newborn infants have simple, instinctive schemas (schemata), notably a sucking schema used for nursing (p. 353).
However, over time infants and young children expand their existing schemas and acquire new, more complex ones, through a process of learning that Piaget called adaptation: drawing on his considerable zoological background, Piaget saw adaptation as the process of changing in order to respond to environmental challenges (Nevid, 2009, p. 353). But adaptation is still more complex, in that it actually consists of two distinct, but similar, processes: “assimilation and accommodation” (p. 353). The process of assimilation entails the use of extant, previously-acquired knowledge in schema format in new contexts (Coon & Mitterer, 2010, p. 97). Many examples could be given, but Nevid (2009) gave a particularly succinct and interesting one: a toddler who had developed a “dog schema”, and then utilized it to categorize “any nonhuman animal, including cats, horses, sheep, and even fish” (p. 354). This is a good example of assimilation: the youngster had already correctly differentiated between humans and dogs, and she further differentiated between humans and all other species of animals (p. 354). However, this is still an example of assimilation, because she used an existing schema in a broader context—incorrectly, in this case (p. 354). Of course, assimilation can also lead to the generation of additional correct knowledge: for example, infants frequently adapt their “sucking schemas” from their mothers’ breasts to baby bottles, a good example of assimilation leading to an accurate expansion of a schema (p. 354).
The other key mental process that composes adaptation is accommodation: in the process of accommodation, new information and new insights lead the young child to revise their existing schemas, and even to create new ones (Coon & Mitterer, 2010, p. 97). Again, take the example of the youngster who adapted all non-human animals to her “dog schema”: the next logical step would be for her to start differentiating between various kinds of non-human animals, i.e. with a “cat schema”, a “sheep schema”, a “fish schema”, and so on. Another example: while the “sucking schema” is easy enough for infants to adapt to a baby bottle, it is not well-suited to an infant cup (Nevid, 2009, pp. 353-354). Accordingly, youngsters must develop a new schema for drinking out of infant cups, such as a “tipping schema” (p. 354).
With this examination of Piaget’s views on adaptation, it is now possible to examine Piaget’s stages of cognitive development the more clearly. The first stage in Piaget’s stage-development theory is the sensorimotor period, which lasts “from birth to about age 2” (Weiten, 2013, p. 446). During this stage, a great deal of infant development is concerned with the coordination between the senses and the infant’s own motor actions, whence the name (p. 446). However, it is also during this stage that infants gradually acquire symbolic thought, a major conceptual breakthrough (p. 446). In the course of this trajectory, the infant transforms from a reliance on reflex-driven behavior to the acquisition of the ability to produce mental images and symbols (p. 446).
But the most important and profound development that occurs in the course of this trajectory is object permanence: the infant’s ability to recognize that objects (and people) do not cease to exist when the infant is no longer able to see them (Weiten, 2013, p. 446). Piaget believed that infants typically began to develop this conceptual breakthrough between 4-8 months, gradually progressing to full mastery of object permanence at about 18 months of age (p. 446). By the end of this stage, the infant is very capable of thinking about people and objects that are not within their field of vision (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2010, p. 389). And with this enhanced ability to engage in symbolic thought, infants can also formulate simple problem-solving strategies, a case in point being the strategy of searching for an object that is not within the baby’s field of vision (p. 389).
The next stage is the preoperational stage, which lasts from about the ages of 2 to 7 years of age (Rathus, 2012, p. 366). During this stage, toddlers and young children utilize words and symbols with considerable facility (p. 366). As Nevid (2009) explained, children in this stage have an ability to “form mental or symbolic representations of the world, especially with the use of language” (p. 355). During this stage, children begin to engage in imaginative “pretend play”, interacting with imaginary friends and imitating not only the actions of other people, but also the actions of cartoon and movie characters (p. 355). Over the course of this stage, this imaginative pretend play becomes ever more complex and intricate (p. 355).
However, despite these considerable advances of mental capacity and functionality, the young child in the preoperational stage maintains a very limited, egocentric perspective (Nevid, 2009, p. 355; Rathus, 2012, p. 366). Children in this stage may seem very selfish, but the basic cognitive issue is that they have yet to grasp the ability to understand other peoples’ points of view (Rathus, 2012, p. 366). Rathus gave an example of his 2 ½ year-old daughter: “I asked her to tell me about a trip to the store with her mother. ‘You tell me,’ she replied” (p. 366). The youngster was incapable of understanding that her father did not and could not experience things from her point of view (p. 366). It is a typical feature of children in this stage: not only are they incapable of understanding that others have their own points of view, but they also seem to believe that everything exists specifically for them (p. 366). In truth, the latter follows from the former: incapable of understanding the perspective of others, the preoperational child may believe that the sun shines to keep them warm, or that the sky is blue because blue is their favorite color (p. 366).
Another cognitive tendency of children at this stage is animism, which in this context means the over-attribution of life and alive-ness: a common belief of children at this stage is that the sun is a living thing, because it seems to move from dawn to dusk (Rathus, 2012, p. 366; Shaffer & Kipp, 2010, p. 54). Still another common tendency is artificialism: the over-attribution of human agency to purely natural, even environmental, features and events (Rathus, 2012, p. 366). As seen, the preoperational child may believe that the sky is blue because it is their favorite color; alternatively, it is quite common for them to believe that it is blue because “’Mommy painted it’” (p. 366).
In one of his now-famous experiments, Piaget presented children in the preoperational period with a pair of identical beakers, each filled with the same quantity of water (Weiten, 2013, p. 446). The children were perfectly capable of seeing that the beakers contained the same amounts of water, but only as long as both beakers were of the same dimensions (p. 446). When Piaget took one beaker and poured its contents into another beaker, one that was both taller and thinner, most of his preoperational subjects said that the taller, thinner beaker contained more water than the other (p. 446). In general, the reason they gave was that the water line in the taller, thinner beaker was higher—and therefore it had to have more water (p. 446).
Piaget developed two very important conceptual principles to explain and define the children’s inability to understand that the amount of water remained constant, despite being in a container with different dimensions: conservation and centration (Weiten, 2013, p. 446). The principle of conservation is the conceptual insight that most of the preoperational children had yet to master: it is simply the recognition that the quantity of any physical thing is conserved, despite any changes in the form in which it is presented (p. 446). By contrast, the children were operating on the principle or tendency of centration, which is characterized by a focus on a single aspect of a problem or thing, at the expense of other features: i.e., the higher waterline in the beaker, as opposed to the fact that the beaker was also taller and thinner (pp. 446-447).
In the concrete-operational stage from ages 7 to 11, children manage another considerable cognitive paradigm change: discarding the many errors of the preoperational stage, they progress to the acquisition of such conceptual breakthroughs as reversibility (Coon & Mitterer, 2010, p. 98). Where a preoperational child is typically unable to realize that if they have a sibling, then their sibling has a sibling as well, a concrete-operational child understands this relationship perfectly: i.e., if they are female and they have a brother, then their brother has a sister (p. 98). They also understand conservation: the tall, thin beaker contains the same amount of fluid as the other beaker, and taking a ball of clay or Play-Doh and turning it into a “snake” does not change the quantity of clay or Play-Doh (p. 99). Because they have discarded centration, they can analyze objects and make comparisons on more than a single property: for example, where a preoperational child would sort a collection of blue marbles and red marbles of differing sizes based only one attribute, such as color, a concrete-operational child is capable of sorting them based on color and size (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2010, p. 390).
For countless American children, this is also around the time that they stop believing in Santa Claus, and there is a very good reason: with their greatly-enhanced logical abilities, they are now capable of understanding volume (Coon & Mitterer, 2010, p. 99). Utilizing this understanding, they come to the realization that, as Coon and Mitterer put it, “Santa’s sack couldn’t possibly hold enough toys for millions of girls and boys” (p. 99). This is a good example of concrete-operational children’s logical abilities, which they are now capable of applying to problems: increasingly, they use trial and error to solve these, and they perform very well, so long as the problems concern only concrete objects (Sigelman & Rider, 2011, p. 50).
The attainment of the next stage, the formal-operational stage, entails yet another conceptual, cognitive breakthrough: the ability to think about abstract ideas and hypothetical scenarios (Sigelman & Rider, 2011, p. 50). This stage is attained at about the age of 11, and persists throughout adulthood: characterized by far more advanced reasoning abilities, young minds in this stage are, for the first time, capable of thinking about their own thoughts (p. 99). As a consequence, young people in this stage are considerably less egocentric: not only do they understand that others have their own perspectives and that the world does not exist solely for them, but they are also capable of analyzing their own behavior and imagining events from another’s point of view (p. 99).
With more abstract thought comes the ability to think about and value concepts and principles, such as “’democracy,’ ‘honor,’ or ‘correlation’” (Coon & Mitterer, 2010, p. 99). As Sigelman and Rider (2011) explained, young people in this stage begin to think about the concept of justice, in particular, “in terms of fairness”: that is to say, justice is no longer simply “the cop on the corner or the judge in the courtroom” (p. 50). Operating purely in their own minds, young people in this stage can imagine an experiment or other event from start to finish, coming up with ways to test out an idea in the real world, and making predictions about the likely outcome (p. 50). Nonetheless, this stage is subject to a great deal of continued, ongoing growth: it may take a considerable amount of time for a young person to fully grasp such a logical way of thinking and problem-solving, and of course some people exhibit these characteristics to a much greater degree than others (p. 50).
Piaget’s theory has exerted considerable impact on the field of developmental psychology: his perspective was the dominant one in the field of child development for approximately thirty years, a pattern that only began to change in the 1980s (Sigelman & Rider, 2011, p. 50). Piaget drew the ire of psychometricians, with his contention that their vaunted intelligence tests were incapable of measuring “the most important aspect of intelligence—how children think” (Shaffer & Kipp, 2010, pp. 55-56). Moreover, Piaget’s willingness to study cognition broke with the behaviorist tradition, another way in which his work was pioneering (p. 56). This led to the study of social cognition in the 1960s: a new area of developmental research, with prominent scholars such as Lawrence Kohlberg and Robert Selman building on the foundation laid by Piaget (p. 56).
Piaget’s legacy still looms large in the classroom, where it has had a very positive impact: his constructivist paradigm, the idea that children construct knowledge rather than merely having it imparted to them by adults, has led to an entirely new approach to education (p. 56). Here, Piaget’s seminal insight was that children “do not think like adults”: as seen, at different stages they think and learn in a variety of different ways, and at all stages before the formal-operational stage, children exhibit sharp differences with adult styles of thinking (p. 56). In Piagetian classrooms, teachers apply this principle to encourage children to construct knowledge through discovery (p. 56). Instead of merely telling the children a new concept, teachers in Piagetian classrooms encourage them to discover it for themselves: in other words, the emphasis is on showing rather than on telling (p. 56).
However, Piaget’s ideas have not gone without criticism. A good example is, ironically, children’s intellectual capabilities: as Shaffer and Kipp (2010) explained, Piaget “regularly underestimated… infants, preschoolers, and grade-school children” (p. 56). If presented with simplified tasks with which they are more familiar, infants, youngsters and children can often perform past Piaget’s expectations (p. 56). There is also evidence that infants may have far more developed capacities for symbolic thought than Piaget recognized, and even some conception of object permanence (pp. 257-259). In fact, Piaget’s stages may be too concrete: new research seems to demonstrate that the picture is far more complex, and children can acquire different kinds of thinking skills at different rates, and, at least in some situations, may be capable of mastering certain concepts and problems before the stage Piaget assigned to such capacities and functionalities (Sigelman & Rider, 2011, p. 50; Weiten, 2013, p. 448). Environmental influences, such as different parenting styles and home environments, as well as cultural influences, seem to exert more of an impact on children’s development than Piaget apparently recognized (Sigelman & Rider, 2011, p. 50).
Personally, I find Piaget’s theory endlessly fascinating, and, more importantly, insightful. While I have no problem accepting that he underestimated the intellectual capabilities of infants, toddlers, children and young people, I find his stages compelling and correct in principle, at least: from infancy to adulthood, human beings do indeed exhibit progressive development of new functionalities and capacities (Sigelman & Rider, 2011, p. 50). Perhaps development through the stages is not so straightforward as Piaget believed, but surely it still occurs: after all, infants do indeed have to acquire more advanced symbolic thinking, and youngsters do indeed view the world very, very egocentrically. His concept of schema is also very compelling, and the process of adaptation through accommodation and assimilation seems very sound: people do indeed categorize information, and attempt to relate new information to categories.
I definitely think that environmental/familial and cultural influences, as well as genetics, exert more of an impact than Piaget seems to have recognized. After all, these influences are very diverse: families and home environments differ both within a culture and across cultures, often in very profound ways. It seems only reasonable to conclude that these factors should exert precipitous influences on infant and child development. I also think genetics must play a significant role as well, if for no other reason than the fact that different people exhibit different personalities, in ways that cannot all be ascribed to culture and environmental influences. Might some people have an innate, genetic tendency for more abstract patterns of thought? Might some people be more logical than others, for reasons that are at least partially ascribable to genetics? I suspect that the answer to these questions and many others is ‘yes’.
In sum, Piaget’s theory has had a seminal impact, and is rightly praised for many compelling insights. His observations led to a very compelling theory, one that does indeed explain a great deal of human development throughout the lifespan. On the other hand, Piaget was wrong in some important ways as well: he underestimated the intelligence of infants, children, and young people, and new research evinces that his stages may be much less concrete than they appeared. These criticisms and shortcomings of the theory are undeniable, but Piaget still deserves a great deal of acclaim for his lasting insights: namely, that styles of thinking change across the lifespan, and that learning occurs through adaptation.
Coon, D., & Mitterer, J. O. (2010). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior (12th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Nevid, J. S. (2009). Psychology: Concepts and applications (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Plotnik, R., & Kouyoumdjian, H. (2010). Introduction to psychology (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Rathus, S. A. (2012). Psychology: Concepts and connections (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Shaffer, D. R., & Kipp, K. (2010). Developmental psychology: Childhood and adolescence (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Sigelman, C. K., & Rider, E. A. (2011). Life-span human development (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Weiten, W. (2013). Psychology: Themes and variations (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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